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Scoppe: Last time SC had a recession, we slashed school funding. It didn't turn out so well

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SC scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report, dropped along with state education funding after the last recession. Paul Bowers/Staff

In March, the Legislature was set to raise every S.C. teacher’s pay by $3,000, pour tens of millions of dollars into textbooks, and school buses, and even maintenance and renovations in poor districts. It was about to follow through at long last on two-decade-old promises to provide full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to poor kids statewide — and to finally get serious about the best investment we can make in raising up well-educated children: smart programs focused on the crucial first three years of life.

The half-billion-dollar increase wasn’t near what advocates wanted, but it marked our state’s biggest investment in public education in decades, brought inflation-adjusted funding to its highest level since before the last recession and was built around a commitment by legislative leaders and the governor to stick with this for the long haul — and to enact vital reforms to ensure the money was put to its best use.

On Wednesday, Charleston County School Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait stood before a House Education panel in Columbia and begged lawmakers for something that would have seemed inconceivably modest three months ago.

“If every district could be assured that we’re not going to receive any less state funding next year than we did this year,” she said, “that right now would be a boon to us.”

The cost to individuals who have lost jobs, to owners who have lost their businesses, to families who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus pandemic is incalculable. But over time, the losses could be increased exponentially by the lost education for hundreds of thousands of children in our state who were robbed of a third of this school year … who face another school year that will be interrupted by COVID-19 precautions that further compromise the learning environment … where the costs will be higher than ever and the funding for teachers and textbooks and everything else … might not drop off. If they’re lucky. If Dr. Postlewait gets her wish.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

Simply spending more money on education will not improve student achievement; we have to spend it the right way, and I’m not convinced we always do that. But just as we need some minimum amount of money to feed, clothe and house our families, South Carolina has to spend some minimum amount of money to educate 780,000 students every year.

While there are legitimate questions about precisely how much that is, and how it should be spent, there’s not a legitimate question about this: If we cut state funding for our schools again like we did after the last recession, children will learn less.

Just like they did after the last recession.

When the so-called Great Recession started drying up state tax revenue in 2008, the Legislature cut public school funding. Didn’t simply fail to increase it; cut it. Didn’t simply cut spending per pupil; cut total spending. Not simply inflation-adjusted spending; actual dollars.

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State spending dropped from $3.8 billion in 2007 to $3.5 billion in 2008, then $3.2 billion for two years before slowly rebounding; it was seven years — more than half of a child’s public school career — before total spending returned to the 2007 level.

Meantime, the number of students kept growing, by more than 60,000. So the amount spent per student didn’t return to the 2007 level until 2018.

And spending per student as adjusted for inflation? That still hasn’t caught up.

OK, so you know all this. What you didn’t know, or hadn’t processed: There was a corresponding drop in student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the one legitimate instrument we have to compare educational achievement across all 50 states.

The Nation’s Report Card is given to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders; it’s mandated by the Congress and based on what students need to learn in school — not how someone who sells tests decided their brains ought to work in order to go to college. (Those scores stagnated too.)

After nearly a decade of rapidly increasing scores following the 1998 passage of the S.C. Education Accountability Act, South Carolina was by 2007 in a statistical tie for 22nd, 28th, 32nd and 36th on the four separate evaluations that make up the report card. Not great, but more than respectable.

Then the recession came, we cut education funding, and by 2017, those rankings had dropped to 42nd, 43rd, 48th and 42nd. And once again we were right back where we had been in the late 1990s — trying to figure out how to pull ourselves off the bottom of the nation’s educational heap.

There’s no clear way to accomplish that, but there’s one sure way not to do it: by hitting repeat on our decade-long experiment in defunding our schools.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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